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Fishing issue clouds India and Sri Lanka ties

Arrests of fishermen from both countries have become diplomatic headache between two Asian neighbours.

Last updated: 10 Jun 2014 08:26
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Controversy surrounding Indo-Lanka fishermen has resulted from the unclear sovereignty over the Palk Strait [AFP]

Colombo, Sri Lanka - Relations between India and its southern neighbour Sri Lanka face growing pressure due to fishermen straying into each other's waters.

Nearly every month, dozens of fishermen from each country get arrested by authorities for illegal poaching.

Indo-Lankan fishermen arrests


In 2013 alone 626 Indian fishermen were arrested while over 200 Sri Lankan fishermen were arrested in the same year.

Since 2011 over 1,200 Indian fishermen have been arrested, while nearly 450 Sri Lankan fishermen have been arrested in the same period. The number of Indian fishermen entering Sri Lankan waters are far larger, simply due to the fact that their fishing communities in Tamil Nadu are far larger in size than those in the North of Sri Lanka.

All Indian fishermen have been released (including the 70 arrested over the weekend), while the Sri Lankan Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic resources have claimed there are still an estimated 100 more Sri Lankan fishermen held in various Indian prisons in Tamil Nadu.

On Saturday, 71 Indian fishermen were arrested by the Sri Lankan navy. A day earlier, 12 Sri Lankan fishermen were detained by Indian authorities after entering Indian waters. 

In the previous week, Sri Lanka's President Mahinda Rajapaksa ordered the release of 29 Indian fishermen - barely a week after he ordered the release of all Indian fishermen as a "goodwill gesture" before he attended the inauguration of the new Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

The fact that the issue of fishermen came up in the talks between Modi and Rajapaksa in New Delhi means that the two countries are concerned about the matter.

In the first six months of 2014, an estimated 200 Indian fishermen have been arrested by the Sri Lankan authorities.

According to the Sri Lankan navy spokesperson, Commander Kosala Warnakulasuriya, on an average Indian fishermen enter these waters illegally thrice a week (Saturday, Monday and Wednesday).

"At this point in time, all Indian fishermen who had been detained, have been released, however we are maintaining a close watch," he told Al Jazeera.

The controversy surrounding the arrest of fishermen has resulted from the unclear demarcation over the Palk Strait, a narrow strip of sea between the two countries.

'Unnerving sight'

According to fishermen living in the northern Mannar district in Sri Lanka, Indian fishing trawlers often come within 500 metres of the shoreline.

"They enter our waters in the hundreds, it is an unnerving sight and we refrain from going out ourselves," said Mannan Vaidhan a fisherman from Mannar who was released from a prison in India's southern Tamil Nadu state in December last year after having spent eight months in jail for fishing illegally in Indian waters.

“It is difficult for us to fish because we do not know where Sri Lankan waters end and the Indian waters begin. With the large number of Indian fishermen entering our areas, we are forced to find new empty stretches of ocean to fish in. Without any GPS in our boats or markings in the ocean it is not difficult to stray in to India's side," he told Al Jazeera.

"They threatened to shoot us if we tried to flee…. They yelled at us…, some of them accused us of being smugglers and one joked about sinking the boat and leaving us on it," he said.

Vaidhan along with 15 others were transported by the Indian navy back to Tamil Nadu where they were handed over to the police.

"They took our details down and transported us to a prison, we were all crammed in to one cell which was already occupied by several others," he said.

It was several weeks before Vaidhan or any of his compatriots were produced before a court, during that period they had limited contact with either the Sri Lankan authorities or their families.

"I spoke to my family only twice in that period. A representative from the Sri Lankan high commission visited us a couple of times and promised us they would have us released."

Fishermen like Vaidhan continue to risk the possibility of arrest and detention to earn a livelihood.

Explaining The Palk Strait

 

The Palk Strait is a strip of ocean that separates Tamil Nadu in India from the Mannar district in Sri Lanka. Its width is between 53 and 80 km, the narrow division between the two countries has resulted in confusion over who holds ownership over the waters.

According to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) is a sea zone which a country has special rights to including the exploration and use of marine resources. This zone stretches 200 nautical miles out from the coastline.

In the case of the Palk Strait, both Sri Lanka's and India's EEZ overlap each other. This has now resulted in the conflict that has arisen between the two nation's fishing communities.

"I now mainly work on shore assisting fishermen who return from their trips, I have a young family to look after and if I was to be arrested and detained there would be no one to provide for them. We do not secure large enough catches to justify the risk, the waters are crowded with Indian fishermen," Vinod Balaatharun, another fisherman, said.

Balaatharun said that the number of Indian fishermen who enter Sri Lankan waters is so high that the local fishermen are scared to venture out.

"I have gone out and been forced to turn back by Indian fishermen who have larger boats. There are too many of them and our navy is not always around to protect us."

Ever since Balaatharun gave up fishing, his monthly earnings have reduced, leaving him and his family struggling.

"I cannot return to fishing until there is greater protection afforded to the fishermen. It is a risky business and we do not need the added risk of being arrested. If the government secures our waters for us to fish then I will return to work, until then I am forced to find a new source of income," he said.

Media Secretary at the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resource Development, Narendra Rajapaksa, said that Sri Lanka and India are currently in the process of ministerial level discussions regarding the issue.

According to Rajapaksa, the Indian authorities are currently holding over 100 Sri Lankan fishermen and 20 vessels.

"Discussions are under way to secure the release of all Sri Lankan fishermen who are in Indian custody. The discussions will also focus on solving the ongoing crisis and ensure that the waters are safe for our fishermen," he said.

Fishing communities in the Northern Province of Sri Lanka are being educated on the safety of fishing to ensure they do not stray into Indian waters, the secretary said.

Joint Director of Fisheries in Tamil Nadu, G Arumugam, said that the fishermen in Tamil Nadu have been fishing in the Palk Strait for generations and would continue to do so.

"The size of the fishing community is increasing, and there is only a small area they can fish in. It is very easy for them to stray in to Sri Lankan waters because they have been fishing in those waters for years," he told Al Jazeera.

Arumugam said that only a clear demarcation of where Indian waters would ensure the arrests would cease, "as long as Sri Lankan fishermen stray in to our waters we will continue to arrest them".

The ongoing discussions between the two countries are expected to restart by the end of the month in the southern Indian city of Chennai.

Follow Dinouk Colombage: @dinoukc

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Al Jazeera
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